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More me than not

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The Brides of Ross in County Clare, Ireland on a very “me” kind of day in April 2019

I lay in bed this morning looking back over old photos, trying to pinpoint the last time I really felt like me. 

I don’t know what I thought I’d find there or what signs I was looking out for. A more genuine smile? “Happier-looking” eyes? If I saw either of those things I was probably imagining it. The fact is I’ve always smiled for photos. And anyway, who’s to say that happier times were times when I was more “me” anyway? Isn’t sadness as much a part of me as any other feeling?

To be honest, I don’t really believe that “me-ness” is necessarily tied to periods of intense emotion. Me-ness is more slippery than that. Less black and white. It involves understanding yourself on a really fundamental level and that, let me tell you, is bloody hard to do! We make up lies about ourselves and the kind of person we are because we don’t want to acknowledge our faults (or at the very least we want to believe that the faults we do have are much less egregious than Susan-from-down-the-road’s). But our faults are part of the great me-ness puzzle just as much as our interests, our fears, and our hairstyle are. We’re like giant fleshy Rubick’s Cubes in that way.

What I’m trying to say is, confronting yourself can be scary and being who you really are is terrifying. What if who you are gets rejected by the world? Even worse, what if you finally understand who you are and then you lose it?

It was Tom Cox that started me on this train of thought. In his book, 21st-Century Yokel (a lovely book of essays that’s part memoir, part nature writing, and part odd stream-of-consciousness, the reading of which feels like you’re sitting by the fire on a windy autumn evening with a hot cup of tea), he wrote:

All people have years when they are more them than they are in other years, and 1982, 1983, and 1984 were all years when I was very me.

Reading this short passage took my breath away. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity this past year and how I’ve been feeling disconnected with a lot of the things that I once felt defined me.

Looking back over pictures this morning with that quote in mind, it was tempting to say that 2014 was the last year I felt “very me” (in a way that’s hard to describe to anyone else other than to say that in 2014 I wore my me-ness like a suit of armour), but to say that is a disservice to 2019-me. 2019-me has been through a lot. I’m older (though probably not much wiser). I’m softer in some ways and harder in others. I stand up for myself more than I did in 2014, but I also value empathy and compassion more than ever before. I like some of the same things as 2014-me did, but not all of them. In many ways, I’m not that old me anymore. I’m different. And I don’t know if I can ever be that person again.

As we move through life,  a lot of us will lose our me-ness as and many of us feel like we’ll never find it again. But maybe we need to stop looking at me-ness as something that’s built once and sustained over a lifetime. Maybe me-ness is something that can be rebuilt over and over and over again.

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It’s the people you meet on the way

When we set out on our great-east-Canada-road-trip three months ago, we had a vague idea of starting a blog to document our travels. This didn’t work out for many reasons, mostly because I’m actually a pretty private person and struggle with how much of myself to share in online spaces.

The other reason is that I am not a good travel blogger. I love trying new places to eat, but if I find something I love, I will go back again and again and probably order the exact same dish. I also a fairly easygoing traveller and am as happy to take a day off to read in a cafe as I am hiking up and down mountains (that is a lie, I am MUCH HAPPIER reading in a cafe than hiking up and down mountains, but I digress). I am also officially an old person, and my idea of nightlife is going for a few early pints and getting back to bed by 9 pm. All of those factors combined do not make for the most exciting travel blog.

But now I’m back in Toronto (for a few weeks anyway) and I find myself wanting to say something about the last three months, which were strange and wonderful and liberating and hard and I think what I want to say is this:

These days it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. We see it on the news every day and every time we make the mistake of looking at an internet comment section. At times, it can feel like we’re surrounded by hatred and intolerance and bigotry and there are days when it’s a struggle to cope with it all. But it’s so important to remember that, in the midst of all the darkness, there is goodness too. Over the last three months, I’ve met the kindest, friendliest humans, who made me remember that we’re all in this together.

So here’s to Glenn and Caroline, who taught us how to harvest honey, to Bebo for sharing a bottle of wine with us with on the patio and discussing the big questions in life, to Laurence who let us monopolize Sherlock the dog’s affection for days and didn’t mind us racing in blow-up donuts across her swimming pool, to André who made us breakfast every morning and gave us travel advice for Quebec, to Sebastien for the free eggs straight from the nest, to Jenessa’s dad (whose name we never caught) who brought us freshly picked blackberries and checked on Richard when he was ill, to the retired teachers we met in St. John’s who bought us a round of drinks and joked with us for a while, to Joyann who made us three meals a day and wouldn’t let us lift a finger to help, to Lana and Roshni and the world travellers we met in their hostel for the chats, the homemade wine, and the half-assed game of Cluedo, and to Jaime and Victor for sharing a homemade Mexican feast with us.

Travel is about so much more than checking something off your bucket list or getting those Insta-worthy shots in front of famous landmarks. It’s about connecting with other people. People who are different from you but so, so alike in so many ways.

I hope the past three months have made me a better person, even just a little bit, and I look forward to whatever comes next.

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Favourite Autumnal Reads

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It’s late September; the long nights are creeping in and there’s a perceptible chill in the air. That can only mean one thing… autumn has arrived!

Ok, I know it’s cliché these days to love all things autumnal, but I can’t help it! I’ve lived in Canada for 7 years now* and have had to endure long, sweaty, humid summers where I have to duck from shade to shade or risk looking like a lobster (the sun is not kind to my milky skin), so forgive me if I revel in the reappearance of big woolly jumpers, thick tights, crunchy leaves, and pumpkin-spice everything.

Autumn comes with another benefit too. As the weather turns colder, it becomes more and more appealing to snuggle up inside with a large pot of tea and a giant stack of good books.

The kind of books I gravitate toward in autumn reflect the changing of the season. I start to crave darker fiction — thrillers, horrors, gothic literature, books that have a sting in the tail. I also enjoy books that remind me there’s still magic in the world because, for me at least, autumn really is the most magical time of the year. 

Chilling reads for children and young adults

My absolute favourite children’s books are and always have been the ones that give me the creeps. When I was a kid, I gleefully devoured books from the Goosebumps and Point Horror series as well as a series called Creepers that I can find very little information about online, but I know for sure contained one book called The Rag and Bone Man — the cover of which still freaks me out a bit:

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See? Chilling.

But my absolute all-time-favourite scary kids book has to be The Witches, by Roald Dahl.

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This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.

Synopsis and cover via Goodreads.

I have a distinct memory of sleeping over at my Granny’s house and being too afraid to sleep after reading the boy narrator’s encounter with his first witch while up in the treehouse and the horrific image of the girl stuck in the painting, slowly growing older and older with each passing year. Even now, 20-odd years later, the book still has the power to frighten me — that’s some powerful writing right there. 

I could write an entire thesis on why Roald Dahl was such a wonderful children’s writer, but in essence, I think it boils down to the fact that he never tried to patronize his audience. His books were often dark and unsettling and he didn’t shy away from that, but he also knew when to balance moments of macabre with humour. I think that’s why I’ll still happy thumb through a Dahl book to this day and remember what it was like to be a scared 10-year-old, afraid to keep reading but too enthralled to stop.

Another writer who manages to pull off the feat of frightening children just enough to keep them coming back for more is Neil Gaiman. He’s one of my favourite authors and I’ll read pretty much anything he puts out, but The Graveyard Book has a special place in my heart.

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After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…

Synopsis and cover via Goodreads

Between vampires, ghosts, murderers, and Death itself lies a sweet story that captures that magic of childhood. It’s a perfect autumn read but, in my opinion, an even better autumn listen. Gaiman narrates the book himself and he is a WONDERFUL narrator. His voice and intonation are just perfect (I may or may not have listened to this book on one of my many walks through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetary).

Horrifying tales to read in front of the fire

You can’t think of autumn without also thinking of Halloween. And you can’t think of Halloween without thinking of horror and ghost stories. And you really can’t think of horror and ghost stories without thinking of the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King.

King has such a vast body of work that everyone can find something they like. Some of my favourite books from the scarier end of the spectrum include ‘Salem’s LotIT, and The Shining, but for this post, I’m going to go ahead and recommend one of his newer books — The Outsider.

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An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

Synopsis and cover via Goodreads

Be warned — this is a disturbing book (TW for descriptions of child rape/murder) and doesn’t make for an easy read in parts, but for me, this felt like classic King and a return to form after the giant “meh” that was Sleeping Beauties.

There were a few sections in particular that caused me to slam the book shut before it gave me nightmares — always the sign of a good horror.

One of my favourite authors in any genre is David Mitchell. There’s something about the simplicity of his language juxtaposed against his big, difficult-to-grasp ideas that draws me in every time. Cloud Atlas is amazing (if you’re struggling to get into it, my advice is to power through the first chapter. It gets so much better! Promise) and The Bone Clocks is my personal favourite, but for a short, creepy autumn read, I’m going to recommend Slade House.

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Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.

Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents — an odd brother and sister — extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late…

Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it.

Synopsis and cover via Goodreads

Like most of Mitchell’s books, this is really a series of interconnected short stories that come together right at the end. It’s freaky as hell and although it is meant to be read as a companion to The Bone Clocks, it can definitely work as a standalone novel as well.

‘Cause this is Thriller…Thriller Night!

I’ll read a good thriller at any time of year, but in my humble opinion, there’s something about foggy evenings and rain lashing against window panes that makes reading about grizzly murders and clever detectives extra appealing.

To that end, one of my favourite series for blending the excitement of the thriller genre with beautiful, lyrical, and atmospheric prose is The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.

Ok, so the plot of the first two novels In the Woods and The Likeness require some suspension of disbelief (particularly The Likeness because wow, that plot does NOT make sense if you examine it too closely), but with writing this good, it doesn’t matter.

My personal favourite (so far — I haven’t finished the series yet) is Faithful Place.

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That which was buried is brought to light and wreaks hell — on no one more so than Frank Mackey, beloved undercover guru and burly hero first mentioned in French’s second book about the Undercover Squad, The Likeness.

Faithful Place is Frank’s old neighborhood, the town he fled twenty-two years ago, abandoning an abusive alcoholic father, harpy mother, and two brothers and sisters who never made it out. They say going home is never easy, but for Frank, investigating the cold case of the just-discovered body of his teenage girlfriend, it is a tangled, dangerous journey, fraught with mean motivations, black secrets, and tenuous alliances. Because he is too close to the case, and because the Place (including his family) harbors a deep-rooted distrust of cops, Frank must undergo his investigation furtively, using all the skills picked up from years of undercover work to trace the killer and the events of the night that changed his life.

Cover and synopsis via Goodreads

One of the things that’s so great about The Dublin Murder Squad is that each book in the series is relatively standalone, featuring protagonists who were minor or peripheral characters in a prior book, so you don’t technically need to read the series in any particular order (except that you should definitely read The Likeness after In the Woods to avoid a bit of a spoiler).

It also means that, unlike other series where I really need to read all the books in a relatively short space of time to actually remember any details and not spend the first 1/3 of the story going “who’s that again?”, I can space these books out months or even years apart. This is a plus for me because I love French’s writing so much that I want to keep looking forward to the next book and not burn through the series too quickly!

Anyway, this post is long and rambling enough. I hope you found one or two books to add to your list! I’m going to go pour myself a cuppa and read for a while.

 

 

* And despite having lived in North America for the better part of a decade, I can’t bring myself to say “fall”. I just can’t. 

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Elegy for a broken Kindle

Yesterday, after seven years of loyal service, my Kindle died.

eBooks aren’t my favourite reading medium (the order, for anyone who’s interested, goes 1) real books (obviously), 2) audiobooks, 3) eBooks, 4) reading classics on Project Gutenberg on the screen of your computer because you’re too lazy to download them as proper eBooks), but it did hold an important place in my reading life and now it is dead and I shall mourn.

Seven years ago, I had just moved to Canada. I didn’t know how long I’d be here and, at the time, I had a serious aversion to ever giving away books. Even if I absolutely loathed a book, I’d still hold onto it to “build my library”.

[Side note: I’ve long since abandoned this obsessive need to keep all my books, but that’s a story for another time.]

But I had a problem — I lived in a condo in downtown Toronto with barely any furniture and certainly not enough space to store all the books I tend to get through each year. The solution seemed simple, I’d just buy a Kindle and use it until I moved back to Ireland, which would surely be the following year.

One year turned into seven and eventually, I slipped back into my hardcopy-book-buying ways. The to-be-read pile beside my bed grew to unmanageable levels and yet the little Kindle still hung around, often overlooked but never fully abandoned.

It became my go-to travelling companion, ensuring I wouldn’t have to cart multiple books on a plane for fear that I’d finish one novel with five terrifying hours of flight left to go. It could slip into even the smallest of my bags, meaning I never had to face morning commutes on the TTC without easy access to a book. It was meant to travel Canada with me, freeing up vital space in the car for camping gear and clothes.

But now… now it is dead. Stuck forever in some screen-burned limbo, never to be read again.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get another eReader, but if I do I’m sure it won’t be as good as you, little Kindle. I hope you’re kicking back in the library in the sky knowing that you provided some measure of comfort and convenience to an Irish girl who may not always have treated you kindly but always used you well.

RIP, Alex’s Kindle: 2011 – 2018.

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What happened when I meditated every day for two months (twice a day!)

(Massive disclaimer alert! I am not a medical professional so take what I say below with a giant pinch of salt. I’m also discussing my experience with one particular form of meditation that I’ll acknowledge right off the bat is pretty expensive, so please don’t take this as an endorsement. It’s just my own personal experience).

Until around three months ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of transcendental meditation (or TM as it’s often abbreviated to). If I had, I’m sure I dismissed it as some sort of hippy woo-woo that required the ingestion of copious amounts of LSD (and I can’t even handle copious amounts of caffeine). In short, I probably assumed it wasn’t for me.

But then Ray Dalio happened.

Ray Dalio, for those of you who don’t know, is a flippityjillionaire (oh, and a philanthropist), who founded Bridgewater Associates. He also wrote a book called Principles that my boyfriend Richard read and enjoyed. It was through this that he first found out about TM, the meditation technique that Dalio credits with his success. Seriously, Google it. He talks about it a LOT.

Richard quickly fell down the rabbit hole, absorbing hours worth of testimonials from everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Clint Eastwood. One thing they all had in common: they all say that TM was transformative and made their lives better.

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Also endorsed by Hugh Jackman, and who wouldn’t trust that face??

We decided to try it.

I’ll stress that this decision did NOT come lightly. If you’re in Canada, the cost of the TM course is approx $1200 per person plus tax, and as yet I don’t think it’s covered by any benefits/health insurance plan. So it’s a LOT of money to fork out. The only reason we were in the position to do so at that time was because we had been saving for a long time for our travels and decided that, if it truly was the life-changing experience we heard it was, it was worth taking that chance.

What is Transcendental Meditation?

Quite simply, it’s a technique of meditation that you practice twice a day for twenty minutes at a time — once in the morning (generally the first thing you do after peeing), and once in the late afternoon/early evening (just after work is a good time because it gives you that space to transition from your work-life to your home-life).

It relies on a mantra, but unlike other mantra meditations, the goal isn’t to focus on the mantra incessantly, drowning out all thoughts; instead, it’s a tool to allow you to “transcend” or go beyond thought.

During the meditation, the practitioner sits upright, closes their eyes, and after 30 seconds begins to softly and quietly repeat their mantra in their mind. For me, it was helpful to imagine it as a kind of background noise, like a radio in a cafe — something you can just about hear but aren’t necessarily concentrating on.

And that’s basically it. There’s a lot of scientific stuff about alpha brain waves that I won’t get into here, but I’m sure you all know how to Google!

O…K… if it’s that easy, then what does your $1200 buy??

I asked myself this question a lot. Why should I spend so much money, when most meditations are cheaper or even free? My only answer is that you’re paying for the time of the instructors. Throughout the course, we got around 12 hours of instruction, which works out at around $100 per hour. Still not cheap by any means, but a little more understandable. You also get free lifetime access to TM centres around the world so you can join in weekly group meditations or request a personal “checking” if you feel like you’re struggling with your practice.

In broad strokes, this is what happens when you sign up to learn TM:

Firstly, you attend a two-hour introductory lecture that introduces the concept of meditation in general and TM in particular. The presenters run through the science behind TM, its history, benefits, and what you can expect from the course itself. Afterwards, you have a short one-on-one interview with one of the TM teachers to talk about any health issues you have, your reasons for wanting to meditate, as well as any concerns you might have.

Next comes the one-on-one instruction which lasts around 90 minutes. In this session, you learn your mantra and the technique for meditating. There’s also a ceremony at the start to honour TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teacher Brahmananda Saraswati and, OK, this definitely felt like the most woo-woo part. But you know what? It was also really nice and calming. For this ceremony, you’re required to bring two sweet fruit, six long stem flowers, and one white cloth. Other than that, you just stand there and watch.

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Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – fair warning, you’ll have to watch a LOT of his videos and the graphics definitely scream “crap, I’ve joined a cult”

After the one-on-one session comes three days of group instruction, each of which lasts two hours and after THAT, there are two more follow-up group sessions coming a few weeks later as well as another one-on-one session with your teacher.

So yeah, learning TM is a bit of a commitment. But is it worth it…?

My experience meditating

I’ve had anxiety for most of my life, and over the last decade or so I’ve tried meditating with little to no success. I knew that meditation was good for managing anxiety, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t stick with it. Going into my first TM session I was nervous. After all, I had forked out a LOT of money and my track record for sticking with meditation was poor. Could I really commit to meditating twice a day, every day, forever?

Day 1: I arrived for my one-on-one coaching session a tad early, and as I waited on the street to be let in, I saw a guy emerge from the building looking very chilled out. He spotted me clutching my flowers nervously and said, “TM?” I nodded. “Oh man!” he said, “You’ll love it.”

In hindsight, I don’t know whether bumping into this guy was a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly raised my expectations and made what came next feel all the more crushing.

My first session turned out to be not at ALL what I expected. After the ceremony, I was given my mantra and told what to do. For a few minutes, everything was fine but then I started to get really upset. And I mean really upset. My eyes started filling with tears and my throat was closing over with panic. Eventually, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and sobbed. Luckily, my teacher Sarah was absolutely amazing. She taught me a technique to help me calm down and explained that meditation can often bring up deep-seated feelings and it’s not unusual for people to occasionally feel overwhelmed. 

I left my session feeling a little embarrassed and a lot drained. Not at all how I thought my first TM experience would go.

Day 2: The first group coaching session. This was where I REALLY started to feel the benefits of signing up for the course. Listening to other people’s experiences validated my own — for example, another woman felt an increase in her anxiety too and several other people were struggling with “thinking too much”. I learned that the goal of TM isn’t to drown out thoughts and you should never use your mantra as a hammer to beat thoughts away. Realizing I wasn’t “doing it wrong” allowed me to experience my first really good meditation (although in TM they urge you to avoid categorizing your meditations. There’s no good or bad. You either do it or you don’t.)

Days 3-5: My mood was great. I was so cheerful and pleasant that I think my coworkers were growing suspicious. Weirdly though, I was also really anxious. I checked my heart rate a few times and it was pretty elevated (for me. I have bradycardia and normally have the resting heart rate of a slug). It’s a really odd experience to simultaneously feel mentally happy but physically messed up. Sarah and David (the other TM teacher for the group sessions) assured me that this is normal and lots of people go through a period of physical adjustment.

Day 9: Anxiety came back with a bang with my first full-blown panic attack in a long time. I injured myself lifting weights and maybe it’s some kind of newly-heightened connection with my body that made me more aware of it than usual but day 9 was a low point. I felt awful.

Day 20: Returned for another group session. I was momentarily thrown because there were more people in the room than I expected and not all of them were from my original group. I’d grown attached to my group so seeing strangers was mildly distressing. However, it ended up being a great session. We were able to hear from a man who was almost six months into his practice and had already gone through all of the bumps in the road us newbies were currently experiencing. He seemed super zen so I’m hopeful that in six months’ time, I’ll be some kind of paragon of cool too (stranger things have happened I’m sure).

Day 27: Final group session. Mostly strangers this time and a different instructor with a different vibe. I didn’t love this session as much as the others, but I find that even a mediocre group session leaves me feeling invigorated.

Day 40: Getting the hang of this whole meditation thing. And honestly, I love my morning meditations. They wake me up and set me up for the day… usually. This was the first day I actually felt EXHAUSTED after my meditation and almost fell back asleep. Even so, it’s still cool that my body can react so differently depending on the day/the mood I’m in etc.

Day 60: Two months in and meditation has become as much a habit as brushing my teeth. Every single session feels different. Sometimes I “transcend” and weird stuff happens (losing my proprioception, i.e. the sense of where my body is in space; hands going numb; feeling like I’m spinning; feeling an absolute sense of calm and peace), but honestly, those times are rare. More often than not, my mind is still racing from thought to thought and I sneak a peek at the clock every five minutes. Even these sessions leave me feeling better though. By and large, I end my meditations feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the next part of my day.

So is it worth it?

Yes. But with a caveat. As I’ve mentioned multiple times already, this type of meditation does not come cheap. You can probably look it up somewhere online and learn the technique yourself, but I honestly wouldn’t because I guarantee you’ll do it wrong. It’s a deceptively easy technique, but I needed those group sessions to fully get a handle on it. It was those sessions, more than anything else, I feel were worth every penny.

So while I think pretty much everyone could benefit from meditation, I’m by no means suggesting that everyone should try TM. There are a lot of great cheaper (or free) resources out there to help you learn a variety of techniques from Mindfulness to guided meditations (the Headspace app, for example) and if you can find success with those, great!

Personally, I can’t ever see myself stopping. I’m going through an extreme life-upheaval at the moment and despite that, my mood has generally been more even and my anxiety is easier to manage. It’s by no means a panacea, but I dread to think what a state I’d be in right now without it.

While it hasn’t changed my life (I harboured vague notions that I might become a clean living exercise freak but instead still eat too much bacon and watch too much Netflix), I did not expect meditation to become such an integral part of my day and I’m excited to see where it takes me next!